Six years ago today, my partner and I — fugitives from BigLaw — opened the doors to our new firm. We had rented desks, lots of boxes, phones that occasionally worked, and a ingrained distaste for big-firm practice.
Six years later, we've got more than a dozen lawyers and enough employees that sometimes I don't recognize them all, and they don't recognize me. Some of that is to the good, some is not.
A few things I've picked up about starting your own law firm in six years:
1. When you're at a big firm, and a partner or associate isn't working out, you can find someone else to work with, either on an emergency basis or in the long term. At a small firm, you're stuck with what you've got, unless you want to go through the unpleasant and sometimes expensive business of firing and re-hiring. So: invest a lot of time in interviewing and vetting the people you hire. Follow up on references. Use connections to get the inside scoop on people. In a small shop, you've got no choice but to rely on them.
2. If BigLaw has infected you with school snobbery, it's time to grow up and get over it when it comes to hiring associates and partners. Plenty of fantastic lawyers didn't go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Chicago. Some of our most standout lawyers have been people who would have a lot of trouble even getting an interview at BigLaw because they didn't to a top-50 school. But their "second-tier" or "third-tier" school taught them more about actually doing competent legal work than the ivy-festooned schools, which tend to focus on training people to teach other people about the philosophy of law. They need jobs, they're just as capable of excellent work, and they won't arrive with the entitled attitudes that some ivy refugees get. That's your competitive advantage over BigLaw. Use it.
3. The time you invest in your associates — showing them how to do things right, giving them lots of feedback on their work, and explaining why you are doing what you are doing — pays back tenfold in the long run. If I spend 100 hours this year painstakingly training up an associate, that's about 500 fewer hours I have to spend next year on writing first drafts of stuff myself, because that associate is going to be trained to do things right the first time, and is going to develop into someone whose work I can trust.
4. Turnover is killer, and retention is key. Unless you're in extraordinary circumstances, you're not going to be able to match BigLaw salaries. Don't pretend to try — particularly in this economy. People will stay with you at a fraction of the salary that BigLaw pays if you give them what they can't get at BigLaw: decent and respectful treatment, no bureaucratic bullshit, more reasonable and honest billable hours requirements, and access to significant work. Let them wear jeans, for God's sake. Make it clear that as long as they get the work done and they're available by email and return client calls, you don't care what time they come in or leave. Order in lunch a lot and have the whole firm eat together. Handle minor legal matters for their family and friends for free — because you take care of your people. That sort of decent treatment gets a type of loyalty that BigLaw's ludicrous salaries never will.
5. Small firms and new firms tend to be very nervous about bringing in business. Never lose sight of the fact that the most important way to keep business coming in is keeping your clients happy through quality work and responsiveness. If your economic model depends on high volume rather than satisfied customers, you're running a mill, not a firm.
6. As soon as you can afford it, hire someone to handle HR and office-management crap. You'll be amazed at the number of hours you get back, how much of a relief it will be, and what you can accomplish in those hours.
7. Find friends and colleagues who have opened small firms and take them to lunch to pick their brains for pricing information. The first few times you make a flat-fee offer, you may either price yourself out of the market or take a bath. Ask for help learning the economics of it.
8. Sometimes you'll make more money turning a case down than taking it. Listen to your gut when it tells you a prospective client is a crank, a nut, or a con-artist. If they've cycled through three or four sets of lawyers, and they're bad-mouthing them all, the problem might be with the client.
9. If you can't have drinks in the conference room at 4:30, or close the office and take everyone bowling, or take a pro-bono case just because you want to, why did you start your own shop in the first place?
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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